Dominic Grieve feels liberated. Britain’s former attorney-general joined the Conservative party in 1972 and served it as an MP for 22 years until he was ejected two months ago for voting against the government on Brexit.
He is not, however, quitting. The 63-year-old is one of three former Tory ministers standing as an independent in the upcoming general election and has no qualms about running against his former colleagues.
“It’s not being kicked into the darkness but kicked into the light.”
He is contesting Beaconsfield, the prosperous rural constituency 26 miles north-west of London that he has represented since 1997. The decision stemmed from how he was treated by prime minister Boris Johnson, someone he says is “dishonest” and “untrustworthy”.
In an election where Mr Johnson is pitching hard for votes in pro-Brexit northern Labour heartlands, Mr Grieve’s fate will determine the extent to which centrist pro-European conservatism remains alive.
“I don’t mind losing but I think my electorate are entitled to the choice,” he said. “I don’t like being pushed around by political parties.”
The chair of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee is an improbable rebel. His father Percy served as a Tory MP for two decades. He was educated at Oxford university and then became a barrister. His crisp yet warm manner speaks to his years as a lawyer before entering politics.
Mr Grieve said he could have backed delivering Brexit, as the 2017 Tory manifesto espoused, were it not for the “completely uncompromising approach” of Eurosceptic MPs. “If my vote had been critical, I think I would have had to accept it. But the ERG’s [European Research Group of hardline Brexiters] behaviour was so destructive that in a way, it sharpened up my own views.”
His U-turn is central to understanding his chances of success in a constituency that voted 51 per cent in favour of Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum and why he is divisive in what should be a benign electorate. Unlike many parts of the UK, business is brisk in shops on the Beaconsfield’s high street where Mercedes and Jaguars are among the most common cars.
This election pits the old face of the Conservative party against the new — the opposition Labour party have no chance. Facing off against Mr Grieve is Joy Morrissey, a 37-year-old London councillor selected three weeks ago.
Whereas the incumbent MP is politely reserved, his Tory challenger is an extrovert. Ms Morrissey may be unknown in Beaconsfield but pitches herself as a contrast to “the typical barrister”.
An American-born passionate Brexiter, she is motivated by social injustice — tackling gangs, improving educational disability testing and “making sure that the most vulnerable in society have the advocates that they need”.
Although her priorities are far from Beaconsfield’s traditional concerns, she is careful to note she opposes the planned High Speed 2 railway, which will sear through the nearby countryside.
Ms Morrissey said the reception has been nearly always warm. “I’ll canvass a whole street and everyone is Conservative bar one. It’s like, is this Disneyland?”
Beaconsfield’s voters fall into two broad categories: those who see Mr Grieve as a “traitor” for turning against Brexit and those who see him as something of a hero for putting the “national interest” above party loyalty.
Both sides were present one recent chilly afternoon in the Old Tea House, a traditional café near the town centre. Ian Svenson voted for Mr Grieve in 2017 but has turned against him. Enjoying a slice of cake, the 65-year-old said that in his mind “democracy rules” and the incumbent MP had broken that edict.
“He shouldn’t be running. It is very difficult to have any respect for any parliamentarians after how they’d behaved,” he explains. In line with many Brexit supporters, Mr Svenson expressed his fear of “huge unrest” if the UK does not leave the EU.
On the other side of the café, two retirees take the opposite view. Anne said “what he has done is for the good of the country” and hinted she was inclined to back him. However, she added: “I do have a soft spot for Boris, he’s like [US president Donald] Trump isn’t he? Bit of a celebrity.”
Her companion, Helen, wondered: “Is this election really going to solve anything?”
Independents traditionally struggle under Britain’s party-dominated first-past-the-post electoral system. But Mr Grieve is well organised and funded, thanks primarily to the People’s Vote organisation lobbying for a second EU referendum. It donated £10,000 to his campaign and has bussed activists to Beaconsfield: over 150 people — from the constituency and afar — turned out to his first outing.
Mr Grieve has contributed £10,000 of his own money, bringing his war chest to almost £40,000. But he is battling one of the largest local Conservative associations in the country. High-profile politicians have visited, too: former prime minister Theresa May was spotted gleefully handing out leaflets for Ms Morrissey.
The rebel in tweed admitted this election was a “blank sheet of paper” and he was “casting in the dark”. His impression from the doorstep is that “my cause is not hopeless at all”.
Of the three former Tory ministers standing as independents in this election — former justice secretary David Gauke and ex-skills minister Anne Milton are the others — he is reckoned to have the best chance of success. There is no pro-Remain Liberal Democrat candidate, which helps, as does the fact Beaconsfield is not a tight marginal.
John Curtice, a leading UK psephologist, said it is “not easy” for Mr Grieve to win even a slender majority as an independent candidate, but “it doesn’t take a ridiculous set of assumptions to see how he does it”.
“Grieve has a very high profile and has had the freedom to speak his mind for a long time. It will come down to his personal vote and how many Tory remainers he can win over,” he said. “If he can take at least 40 per cent of his party’s vote and secure the votes the Liberal Democrats would have won, he can win.”
Photographs by Charlie Bibby/FT